Weakness Theory: Education and Tyranny
by Liam E. Semler
This is a short essay on something called ‘Weakness Theory.’ It is not directly about Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. Rather, its focus is on educational institutions (for example, schools and universities) as systems which have rules that teachers and students must obey. In other words, teachers and students are not totally free to teach and learn whatever literary texts they want in whatever ways they want. There is a specific text list, specific frameworks through which texts must be explored, and specific exams examining specific things at the end. This means it is a ‘strong’ system because its rules must be obeyed. This essay invites you to consider whether a strong system is a good system, or whether it would be better if it were weaker (and thus allow more room to move for teachers and students). You could ponder the same question in respect to the government of society. You might think of a democracy as a weak system because its rules allow people a fair degree of freedom to do as they please, while a tyranny or dictatorship might be a strong system because its rules demand strict compliance in many areas of life.
The easiest introduction to ‘weakness’ in educational theory is Gert Biesta’s open-access article, ‘On the Weakness of Education’ (Philosophy of Education (2009): 354-62). Biesta’s starting point is the language of ‘strength’ that dominates the discussion of formal education in our time:
By ‘strong language,’ I mean to refer to language that depicts education as something that is, or has the potential to be, secure and effective – for example, where the aim is to establish a strong and secure connection between educational ‘inputs’ and educational ‘outcomes.’ This is, for example, the language of educational effectiveness: the language of effective schools, effective teaching, strong leadership and teacher-proof curricula.(‘On the Weakness of Education,’ 354)
Biesta is not convinced by the value of such ‘strength.’ He argues that education cannot be reduced to a ‘technology’ with ‘totally predictable outcomes’ and ‘totally guaranteed’ successes (‘On the Weakness of Education,’ 354). This is because the relationship between teaching and learning is not ‘physical,’ but ‘hermeneutic,’ as students interpret their experience and try to make meaningful sense of it (‘On the Weakness of Education,’ 354). Teaching and learning need to be treated much more flexibly, otherwise teachers are just being forced to force certain ideas and texts down students throats without consideration for far more diverse possibilities.
Biesta writes of education’s function as tripartite. It delivers knowledge in order to qualify students for doing something in society; it socializes students as sharers in existing cultural norms and values; and it contributes to ‘the subjectification of children and young people’ which means it facilitates the emergence of unique and free selves (‘On the Weakness of Education,’ 355-56). Qualification, socialization and subjectification are complexly interrelated functions that Biesta explores in his books, Good Education in an Age of Measurement: Ethics, Politics and Democracy (2010) and The Beautiful Risk of Education (2014). Do you think the educational system you are embedded in is delivering to you appropriate: qualification, socialisation and subjectification? By analogy, if you were living in the Rome of Julius Caesar, as for example Brutus and Cassius are, would you feel the social system was delivering appropriate opportunities and freedoms to yourself and other citizens? How tyrannical (strong) or democratic (weak) does it seem to you?
The metaphor of strength seems a natural fit with highly prescriptive educational systems that require compliance from students and teachers on a large scale as well as in fine detail. Biesta argues that strong educational paradigms fall down when it comes to enabling the student to develop uniqueness of the self (i.e. subjectification) because such a thing cannot be forcibly produced (‘On the Weakness of Education,’ 361). Again, thinking by analogy, can a tyrannical ruler force freedoms and uniqueness on citizens?
Biesta’s account of school education as overly restrictive is evocative, but may leave teachers wondering about how to implement educational weakness in a beneficial way. What would weakness look like in the curriculum or classroom? And what virtues of a strong system might be lost in the transition to weakness? Think again of Julius Caesar: what are the alternatives to his leadership and what is lost in the process of change?
In Good Education in an Age of Measurement, Biesta urges teachers to use a ‘pedagogy of interruption’ to make sure that students do not ‘become immune to what might affect, interrupt and trouble them’ (Good Education, 90). Such a pedagogy, Biesta continues, ‘acknowledges the fundamental weakness of education vis-à-vis the question of subjectification’ and this is good ‘because it is only when we give up the idea that human subjectivity can in some way be educationally produced that spaces might open up for uniqueness to come into the world’ (Good Education, 91). There is a plea here for the importance of educators not obstructing plurality and difference in student learning and identity. Biesta returns to weakness in The Beautiful Risk of Education (2014) where it is presented as crucial to developing creativity, communication, uniqueness and freedom.
This essay is a condensed and modified version of Liam E. Semler’s essay ‘Weakness Theory.’